With the exception of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and John Cassavetes, I can’t think of many other directors who have had more influence on modern American cinema in recent years than Hal Ashby. And yet, Ashby’s name still remains relatively unknown among the general film-going public. This seems partially due to the fact that all of the other directors I mentioned have been the subject of many books and formal studies. But since his early death in 1988 at age 59, Ashby’s troubled life has remained the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Thankfully that’s all changed with the release of Nick Dawson’s new book Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel recently published by the University of Kentucky Press. This fascinating account of the life and death of Hal Ashby is the first biography written about the director and it’s an important as well as informative read.
Hal Ashby is often remembered for his rebellious spirit, drug addiction and outsider status in Hollywood during the ‘70s. But Being Hal Ashby debunks a lot of the myths that have surrounded the director for years. It also sheds light on the creative choices Ashby made throughout his career without sensationalizing the darker aspects of his life. I really appreciated the tone of Nick Dawson’s book since it shied away from the tabloid style of so many other current biographies. The writer’s self-assured and thoughtful approach to his subject is really refreshing.
The ’70s proved to be an extremely productive decade for many Hollywood filmmakers, but few directors had such an incredible run of first-rate movies throughout the ’70s as Hal Ashby. In contrast to some of his more somber contemporaries, Ashby’s films managed to reflect the underlying anxiety felt in post-’60s America while still celebrating the country’s boundless optimism. Between 1970 and 1971 Hal Ashby directed The Landlord (1971), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979). But before becoming one of the decade’s greatest filmmakers, Ashby was an Oscar winning editor who worked on some of the best films of the ‘60s including The Children’s Hour (1961), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Loved One (1965), The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
Being Hal Ashby provides readers with a well-rounded examination of Ashby’s career and doesn’t bypass the films he continued to make into the ‘80s before succumbing to the cancer that finally killed him. It’s obvious that Nick Dawson has a deep appreciation of the director’s work and his enthusiasm is contagious. After finishing Being Hal Ashby I was inspired to seek out some of the director’s later films such as Lookin’ to Get Out (1982) and 8 Million Ways to Die (1986) that I may have dismissed in the past. I suspect that I’ll now view them with new appreciation and respect. When a book inspires me to reevaluate my own opinions about a filmmaker’s career, it’s well worth recommending.
Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel retails for $37.50, but you can currently purchase copies of the book at <a href="Amazon for just $30. Whether you’re a fan of Hal Ashby and his films or just interested in what Hollywood was like in the ‘70s; Being Hal Ashby makes for some great summer reading.